Bringing his message of engagement over isolation to the English-speaking Caribbean, U.S. President Barack Obama wrapped up a meeting in Jamaica on Thursday stressing his administration’s commitment to the region and announcing energy and education initiatives.
“We are not just nations, we’re also neighbors,” Obama said at a youth town hall before heading to Panama for the weekend Summit of the Americas. “In our foreign policy, there are no senior or junior partners in the Americas; there are just partners.”
Obama’s reassurance came after a meeting with Jamaica Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller followed by a summit with 13 other Caribbean leaders. Together with Simpson Miller and Suriname President Desiré “Dési” Bouterse, who was a no-show, they make up the 15-member political grouping known as Caricom.
In recent years, Caribbean leaders have complained about being neglected by the United States as the administration focused its foreign policy elsewhere.
Perry Christie, the Bahamas prime minister and current Caricom chairman, told Obama that the meeting — the third with Caricom since Obama’s first presidency — “should mark a new and positive beginning for the Caricom-U.S. relationship.”
The meeting between Obama and Caricom leaders lasted for well over an hour with different nations raising areas of concerns outside of the topics of energy, competitiveness and security that were listed as key discussion points.
For example, Antigua Prime Minister Gaston Browne raised what he called “a potentially devastating threat” to the financial services sector after the State Department indicated that several Caricom countries were a major concern for money laundering.
During the visit, Obama announced several initiatives, including a new fund to mobilize private investment in clean energy projects in the region. Though a dozen Caribbean nations are part of Venezuela’s discounted Petrocaribe oil program, Caribbean people have some of the highest energy costs.
“If we can lower those costs through the development of clean energy and increased energy efficiency, we could unleash, I think, a whole host of additional investment and growth,” Obama said.
He also announced that the United States was committing nearly $70 million in investments in education, training and employment programs for young people throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.
“These investments will help young people in unemployed and impoverished and marginalized communities, and give them a chance to gain the skills they need to compete and succeed in the 21st century economy,” Obama said.
The final initiative was the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative. The unique exchange program, Obama said, will seek out the most innovative young entrepreneurs and civil society leaders in the Caribbean and Central America to help expand their commercial and social ventures.
Obama later fielded questions on a number of topics from the youths. The issue of gay rights came up when he praised a lesbian woman, Angeline Jackson, who had set up an organization to advocate for women like her. But it was the new U.S.-Cuba relationship that dominated the gathering, with Simpson Miller telling Obama “he’s on the right side of history.”
“I believe that engagement is a more powerful force than isolation, and the changes we are making can help improve the lives of the Cuban people,” Obama said. “And I also believe that this new beginning will be good for the United States and the entire hemisphere.”
Throughout the visit, Obama paid tribute to the Jamaican people.
Late Wednesday, shortly after arriving, he made an unannounced visit to the Bob Marley Museum.
“I will say that the quick trip that I made last night to Bob Marley’s house was one of the more fun meetings that I've had since I've been President, as a big fan since I was in high school, and is indicative of the incredible spirit of the Jamaican people,” Obama said.
The visit earned Obama much respect among reggae music fans and Jamaicans, who lined the streets to catch a glimpse of his motorcade. .